In our Play and Social Skills Groups at Our Village, the South Bay nonprofit I direct, we strive to include mentors or “advanced players” that are a good match for the “novice players.”
Another research-based technique we use is called a Teaching Interaction, a tool for teaching social skills to children in play groups, ABA treatment and counseling settings. Parents can also use this simple, powerful, easy-to-implement technique. Once you have the steps down, your child will like how systematic it is, how predictable it is, and how much fun it can be! Here are the six steps:
1. Label and identify the skill to learn. For our children to understand we are looking for in them, we need to give the skill an age-appropriate, short name.
For example, instead of saying to your child, “We need to practice how you overreact or run away every time one of your peers annoys you,” say, “We are going to practice Brave Talk.”
2. Provide a reason for learning and practicing the skill. You always want to include your child’s rationale for “buy-in” and motivation. We want to encourage the child to find their own motivation to work on a challenging social skill, not merely accept an adult’s reason. Ask your child, “Why is this skill important?” or “What do you think that means?”
Write out all the reasons your child gives you on large piece of paper or a white board, then summarize them and add your own.
3. Model the skill through description and demonstration showing what to do and what not to do. Act out or create drawings with talk bubbles to show your child visually what the skill should look like. Also provide an example of what not to do. Even though it might be fun for your child, don’t have your child practice what not to do, because we don’t want this to inadvertently become part of their social-skills repertoire.
Keep this step playful, fun and embedded with humor. Use props such as movie clipboards or megaphones, video modeling or puppets. We like to say the phrase, “Ready, Set, Action” before we do the Role-Play, and then, “Cut!” when we are done.
4. Let your child practice the skill through role-play. The child can practice with another child, a friend or sibling, a puppet, or the parent.
Teach your child a fun way to express whether what they are seeing and doing during role-play is appropriate or inappropriate. In our groups, we use thumbs up and thumbs down. It is always interesting when a child rates something as “thumb sideways,” as this gives you a great moment to explore their thinking process together. For verbal responses, we like to use “cool” vs. “not cool,” “new” vs. “old” or “helpful” vs. “not helpful.” Stay away from labels that add criticism and judgment, such as “good/bad” or “right/wrong.”
5. Provide your child with constructive feedback. Continue to have the child or children practice until everyone gets a turn and provide positive feedback with some minor corrections. For example, “I like the comeback you gave to your brother when we practiced that was short and not offensive. Way to go! Remember, walk away as fast as possible so you don’t keep the argument going.”
6. Consider giving external consequences. Get creative and survey your child for what kind of reinforcement they might like. Always start with specific verbal praise such as, “I love the way you tried something new” or, “Wow! I can really see you’ve got this Brave Talk down!” If you need some additional motivation, you can pair this with small tangibles such as special time with you or friends or marbles/pom pom’s in a jar that, when filled, earns an activity that is “socially fun” with others.
Remember that social skills need to be taught, especially for our children who don’t do as well learning by observing others. If we don’t teach them, our children can face problems of poor interaction, inclusion and empathy as they get older.
Monica Fyfe is the founder and executive director of Our Village, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit agency in the South Bay that provides play and social-skills groups for children, teens and young adults with autism and other social delays. She is also a licensed marriage and family therapist, a board certified behavior analyst, and a registered play therapist-supervisor. She is the mother of two children, and also works in private practice in Redondo Beach at her counseling company Play 2 Learn.